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Ina book destined to become a classic, biologist and acclaimed nature writer Bernd Heinrich takes readers on an eye-opening journey through the hidden life of a forest.
Heinrich (One Man's Owl, 1987, etc.) bought 300 acres of logged-over Maine woods in 1975 and set out to restore its ecological diversity. A professor of biology at the University of Vermont, he uses the farm as retreat, classroom, and research lab. Heinrich is a detective in the woods. He infers from the presence of pin cherries the location of old pastures and dates a 19th- century forest fire by examining growth rings and charcoal deposits. His scientific method is wide-ranging and inclusive, drawing on engineering, mathematics, zoology, biochemistry, forestry, and economics, encompassing both micro and macro views. For the former he scrutinizes saplings under a microscope and details the biochemical process by which trees manufacture wood. The big picture spurs musings on the vast interconnectedness of nature as he traces the mind-bogglingly complicated symbiotic relationships among plants, animals, and natural forces like wind and sunlight. Heinrich uses simple sketches to illustrate his explanations of the ingenious design, growth strategies, and reproductive methods employed by trees in their quest for survival. In his ultimate goal of creating a forest, a place of "habitat complexity" vastly different from the sterile monocultures planted by paper companies in the name of sustainable forestry, he succeeds admirably. It's a pleasant surprise, then, to learn that in the end Heinrich does well by doing good: Not only is he rewarded with a diverse plant and wildlife population, he also reaps a cash profit from responsible logging.
Heinrich tells us more about trees than we'd ever dream of wondering, yet manages to transform the esoterica into a fascinating tribute to nature's superior design.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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I have lately been surveying the Walden woods so extensively and minutety that I now see it mapped in my mind's eyeas indeed, on paper-as so many men's wood-lots . . . I fear this particular dry knowledge may affect my imagination and fancy, that it will not be easy to see so much wildness and native vigor there as formerly. No thicket will seem unexplored now that I know that a stake and stones may be found in it.
I'm not much of a hiker of paths, either in a park or elsewhere. Being encumbered like a beast of burden by carrying a pack of goods and tools, and being confined along a trail that leads to some predetermined destination, makes me dig in my heels. I like exploring. I like not knowing when and where I'll end up. That way I get easily diverted and find the new, the unexpected. To learn to know something is less to gaze upon it from known paths and vistas than to walk around it and see it obliquely.
I ramble in my home woods at different times and circumstances. I've struck out in the middle of a blizzard. Once in July I waited until midnight to head out. I've wandered out on spring dawns just when the warblers were returning, on sweltering summer afternoons when the blackflies were biting, in thunderstorms and also under blue sunny skies in Indian summer when the woods were a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors. In my memory, I savor the images that were collected on these rambles and that bind me to this place. Some might consider these images trifles. But I am hard-pressed to come up with greater riches than thosememories.
I remember when a blizzard was howling through the great maple trees. A pileated woodpecker, deep black and with its white wing bars flashing, sliced with muscular wingbeats through the forest of thick maples and ash. The back of its head sported a crimson crest. The bird landed abruptly on the trunk of a maple, eyeing me warily. Then it slipped into a cavity in the tree to seek shelter from the driving snow. I remember finding the nests of warblers artfully built and hidden, those of each species in their own special places. I found the nest-cup of a grouse at the foot of a beech. The image of a flock of red crossbills under silent gray skies with great flakes falling on already snow-laden balsam fir trees is imprinted in my mind. I remember a late-summer night under the thick-leaved maples in our woods. The trees let through only points of starlight. It was still. I heard only the faint patter of caterpillar fecal pellets dropping on leaves, and the occasional faint "tseet" of a sleeping bird hidden in the deep layer of leaves. There are moments, other trifles: the crash of a deer through the swale grass; the flushing of a hermit thrush from her nest leaving four startlingly blue eggs at my feet; the black shape of a fisher cat (a weasel relative) disappearing into the brush abandoning a just-killed porcupine with blood on its throat. I do not remember the specifics of innumerable other walks. These walks were perhaps overall very important. They generated the backdrop of familiarity and knowledge that was necessary to make the treasures stand out and to give them substance.
It is a sunny and breezy late morning in August and I'm going on another ramble. It will start, as usual, with the feet, but I do not know where they will carry me. There are always new things to encounter and divert.
Now it seems to be mushrooms. During the last two weeks, the shady ground under the verdure of my young sugar maples had been resplendent with crowds of bright yellow unicorn entoloma mushrooms and a sprinkling of tiny, bright scarlet fairy helmets. There were also brown boletes, purple and green-topped brittlegills, and numerous white-flecked red and yellow death caps. The mushroom diversity seemed phenomenal. In a patch of hemlocks I counted twenty-eight species within fifteen minutes. Every week there is a different mushroom show. These ephemeral fungal fruiting bodies are partially eaten by slugs and squirrels, and they soon subside into the soil as black slime, consumed by fly larvae and bacteria. But the fruiting bodies are only the organisms' "heads." The rest of their bodies are extensive, mostly unseen, and they play a vital role in the forest. Individual lives submerge in this interconnected flow of life.
At this time of year the birds have already receded into the background. Three months ago there was a vibrant cacophony of just-returned birds from all around. I now heard only anonymous "tseeps," the contact calls of hungry young following their parents. Even the red-eyed vireos were silent. In past years, they sang even in early August. Yesterday, I found one of their white birch bark-decorated nests in a horizontal fork of a young maple near the cabin. It was identical to the nest with eggs I had found long ago on the maple at the Adamses' farm, except that this nest was unattended and the one egg it contained was rotten. Are there too few caterpillars for the parents to feed their young this year? There are no indigo buntings this year in the forest clearing around my cabin. A raccoon took all the young tree swallows from my bird boxes. It also took the brood of phoebes from their nest of mud and green moss on the woodshed. A bird's life in this forest is one of boom and bust, and outcomes are often determined by imponderable trifles. As some fail in any one year, others may do well. This year the winter wrens seem to be having great success, perhaps because my recent lumbering operation has left a scattering of limbs and upturned roots under which they like to nest.
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Meet the Author
The author of numerous bestselling and award-winning books, Bernd Heinrich is a professor of biology at the University of Vermont. He divides his time between Vermont and the forests of western Maine.
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This book is full of interesting information the average person probably never learns, even through university courses. If the science textbooks in school were this interesting we'd all become scientists! I really enjoyed reading about Heinrich's experiences, experiments and observations in the woods. His insights show not only his knowledge, but also his wisdom.